A team of music students from DePauw University set out to create an informational short about the musical group A Far Cry. The goal was to create a video that illustrated what these artists were experiencing as they made their way through the world of serious music and away from the safety net of a regular gig, an administrative staff, and a permanent venue.
They “wanted to know what was gained and what price was paid,” said one member of the team. “Where we ran into problems when making the film was the technical challenges of capturing, in real time, these stories.” For example: “An interview shot from the back of the room lacked sound quality and up-close intimacy.”
If this sounds familiar, realize that this is a common issue for artists trying to create their own videos. We thought it might be helpful to bring in an expert to talk about how the team might have started the project and what they could do to make it better. Elizabeth Nonemaker, our brand-new associate editor, is a composer and arts journalist. She specialized in multimedia and digital storytelling at USC Annenberg’s Specialized Journalism program.
A CRITIQUE ON POWERFUL VISUAL STORYTELLING
If the purpose of storytelling (or one of them, anyway) is to stir curiosity, I consider this video a success. I come away with a strong desire to learn more about the ensemble A Far Cry – I want to hear all of their music, attend their performances, and learn more about the musicians’ backgrounds. To that end, these filmmakers followed perhaps the only hard-and-fast “commandment” of nonfiction storytelling, which is: Pick a good subject!
But, there are several strategies to make the project even better. I’ve divided them into two categories: The Drawing Board and The Edit Bay.
THE DRAWING BOARD: PREPARING YOUR STORY
Knowing the angle and purpose of your story is crucial, even as you gather raw material. Before you do anything else, ask yourself:
What key information does the audience need to know? Remember your Five Ws and One H.
Think of storytelling as a performance in posing and answering a series of questions. These questions come in the form of the “Five Ws and One H.” They are: who, what, where, when, why and how.
Why and how questions are the most interesting because they’re open ended. To that end, you want to answer the first four W’s relatively quickly, so that the audience feels grounded enough to dive into those more interesting whys and hows.
This video does a pretty good job of answering the first four Ws. We learn the what: A Far Cry is a self-conducted music ensemble. The where is Boston, and the when is 2007 to the present day. The who is a little problematic: the audience never formally meets any of the individual members, and they speak for themselves only in passing.
But I have endless questions about the whys and hows. Why was A Far Cry founded in the first place? Why did they feel the need to form an independent record label? Why is being self-conducted so important, and how do they rehearse?
After establishing a clear setting, it is this pattern of posing and answering why and how questions that will keep your audience engaged.
What’s your story?
We all aspire to tell good stories, even if it’s just a cocktail-party anecdote. But when you’re making a piece of media, it’s especially important to keep elements of good storytelling in mind. These include:
The structure should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Beginning: How did A Far Cry start? Middle: What led to their Grammy nominations? End: What has the group learned, and what do the members see in their future?
Who is your story about? We should meet key members of A Far Cry early on. They should tell the story of their ensemble as much as – and probably more than – the narrator.
Good stories involve struggle, so make sure the conflict is clear. The conflict facing A Far Cry is: How do they go it alone? They’re striving to realize their vision without a conductor, without a record label, without an administrative team. Can the filmmakers bring this struggle to the forefront?
How Can I Make the Most of My Medium?
The filmmakers are making, well, a film! So shoot lots of different kinds of footage. Our footage should include personal interviews and scenes of A Far Cry’s working life that its audience may not always see, in addition to public performances.
Additionally, the ensemble’s performances are visually and aurally arresting. Why not let performance clips play for much longer, with the volume raised from a background level? And a technical note about sound: Use a separate mic in addition to the built-in camera mic, so that sound quality is maintained even when filming from far away.
THE EDIT BAY: REFINING YOUR STORY
It may not be possible for these filmmakers to go back out and reshoot footage, so what could we do with the existing material to include more of the above strategies?
Let viewers and subjects form their own reactions.
There are several instances in this video when the narrator presents value judgments as facts. A few examples are at: 1:26, when A Far Cry’s interview is described as “playful”; 4:07, when two students are described as “dynamic”; and at 5:05, when the audience at Music on the Square is described as “truly connected.” Subjective assessments are powerful when they’re voiced by a subject. If audience members describe themselves as “truly connected,” the filmmakers should use that footage! In the meantime, the narrator should stick to providing factual, trustworthy information.
Never underestimate the power of clear, specific language. What does “embracing the democratization of the artistic process” [6:17] actually mean? What is an artistic path “not defined by the past but rather by the … rich cultural traditions of … all members” [7:10]? Your audience is smart! They’ll be able to draw generalized conclusions on their own if you present them with consistent information, one specific detail at a time.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this critique, finding an interesting subject is the most important part of making a successful piece of nonfiction. I would also add that the filmmaker should care – deeply – about the subject. Watching this video, I feel that the filmmakers’ admiration for A Far Cry comes through clearly, and I’m moved by it. Why else would they want to share the ensemble’s story with the world?
A lot of times, nonfiction storytelling is about getting out of the way of your subject so that they can tell their own story. Clear structure, objective narration, and allowing space for subjects to speak for themselves help with that. It often comes down to trust in your subject, to communicate with the audience directly, and in your audience, to be as captivated by them as you are.